Ask the panel

August 4, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am an academic-related member of staff at an institution where my partner is an academic. Until recently we worked in the same department. The head of my partner's department seems to be victimising my partner (through, among other things, trying to set him up to fail). It's not something that can be pinned down (though there is some documentary evidence). We suspect that this is as a result of my partner and I getting together in summer 2004, leading to the break-up of both of our marriages. Divorce is difficult enough without a head of department who lacks compassion and is pushing my partner to the edge. Please can you help? We really don't know where to turn - we are both members of the University and College Union.

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "You and your partner have made very positive steps in recognising that a problem exists.

There are many sources of help available. First, you might want to establish whether your university offers assistance programmes such as confidential harassment adviser networks or has staff trained as advisers; you can also seek help from your union."

She goes on: "Having identified support services available inside the institution, you may want to discuss with them the most appropriate methods of resolving the problem. The simplest will be for your partner to have an informal chat with his head of department, explaining the impact that his behaviour is having on you both. He is advised to speak to the support services and/or the union prior to taking this course of action; he may wish to take a witness along.

"If this is unsuccessful, you could explore mediation (if this is available to you in your institution). If it is not possible to resolve the situation informally, most institutions will have a formal policy for dealing with harassment. Where this is not the case, there is usually a reference to bullying within the institution's formal grievance procedure, which will constitute their formal procedure towards the problem. You will also get legal protection from victimisation by making a legitimate complaint and should therefore not fear reprisals.

"To accumulate evidence in cases where behaviour is more subtle than overt, it is advisable that your partner keeps a diary recording the time and date of incidents and the forms of bullying behaviour taking place. An investigation will be based on whether there is a case to answer and having circumstantial evidence and/or witnesses can strengthen your case."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "You should, in the first instance, advise your partner to obtain a copy of your institution's bullying and harassment policy, which I'm sure will make it clear that the institution takes this very seriously. Your partner will then have to decide whether to try to resolve the situation informally by indicating to the alleged bully that their behaviour is unacceptable, either in person or in writing, or whether to make a formal complaint. The policy will describe the steps of the procedure in place at your institution.

"In the meantime, it is advisable for him to keep written notes of incidents that he finds unacceptable. These may prove useful in helping him to decide what course of action to follow and also when speaking to other people.

"Your partner should also find out if your institution has a harassment support group or a network of harassment advisers, a staff welfare adviser or any externally provided employee assistance scheme with whom your partner can discuss his concerns in confidence. Your human resources department will be able to advise you further."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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